Risks & Hazards Involved in Javelin Throwing
According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, javelin throwing is a very old sport. Hercules was reported to be a javelin thrower. In the early competitions of 708 B.C., the javelin was thrown for accuracy, while today it is thrown for distance. The Scandinavians began competing in the javelin about 1780, and they continue to be represented among top javelin throwers in the world. In an interview with RunBlogRun, the current world champion, Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway wondered why javelin is considered so hazardous that most United States high schools do not offer it at track and field meets.
For men, the javelin is a hollow metal tube weighing 800 g, which is about 1 3/4 lbs. It measures about 8 1/2 feet long. Women and high school athletes use a lighter javelin. A whip-and-flail motion that uses the whole body is performed to throw the javelin, according to the USA Track and Field Coaching Manual. Throwers run, do a series of cross-steps, plant their leg and whip the body and arm forward to release the javelin. Timing and angle of the release are critical to throwing long distances.
While media coverage may focus on accidents such as the errant javelin thrown by Tero Pitkamaki in a professional track meet, which crossed the infield to spear a long-jumper’s leg, most of the injuries incurred by javelin throwing are overuse injuries sustained by the throwers. Analysis by National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research of NCAA and high school injury data found that between 1990 and 2007, eight individuals were struck by a thrown javelin. There were no fatalities. The NCCSIR found that more serious injuries and the largest number of deaths in track and field are incurred during pole vaulting.
The primary injury javelin throwers suffer is to the elbow. Per Josefsson, a Swedish orthopaedic surgeon, reported that 11 of the 18 javelin throwers he treated for elbow pain had a sudden onset of pain during a throw, while the remainder had a gradual increase in pain. He attributed the symptoms to a partial medial collateral ligament tear and inflammation. Javelin throwers also suffer the shoulder injuries seen in other throwing sports. Some javelin throwers fall forward onto their hands after they release the javelin, which puts their hands and wrists at risk for injury.
Knee and Back
Javelin throwers use their body mass to propel the javelin forward. The USATF feels that the run should increase the thrower's distance by 30 to 40 percent over a standing throw. This creates considerable stresses on a thrower's legs and lower back. The knee is susceptible to injury during the plant portion of the throw.
In children, there are secondary centers of bone growth near joints which are vulnerable to injury. Little Leaguer’s shoulder -- a stress fracture of the shoulder -- and Little Leaguer’s elbow are traction injuries that occur in children with throwing. The outside, or lateral, elbow shows compression and cartilage injuries with excessive throwing in children. In addition to throwing arm injuries, young javelin throwers may suffer a spine fracture, spondylolysis, due to the hyperextension of throwing or weight lifting.
The USATF recommends off-season work to develop speed, strength, and flexibility to prevent injuries. During the season, this work should continue, and throwers should work on mastering good throwing technique while limiting total number of throws. Andreas Thorkildsen describes his training routine as focusing on flexibility and gymnastics. He limits throwing to once a week during competitive season and emphasizes technique over strength. “American Family Physician” gives the same advice, noting that young throwers should limit the number of throws during the competitive season, not engage in year-round throwing and use good form.
Jennifer Williams has been writing as a freelancer for local newspapers since 1999. Her work now appears on various websites. She did a five-year orthopaedic surgery residency, followed by a one-year sports medicine fellowship and has been a team physician for NCAA Division I universities and high school teams. As a former collegiate athlete, Williams continues competition at the masters level.